Moral and social allegories formed the basis of Shotgun Players' 2009 season, which began with David Hare's Skylight (a British drama about class politics) and continued with Mark Jackson's Faust (a tale of desire and exploitation). Now the company has chosen an even more challenging parable, George Orwell's 1945 novel Animal Farm, which satirizes Stalin's regime in the former Soviet Union. It's a classic great-booksy text about greed, corruption, and totalitarianism that belonged to a very specific time and place. (Anti-Stalinist fables just don't hit as hard as they used to.) To make the material not seem dated, Shotgun incorporated hip-hop and spoken word. Director (i.e., "remixer") Jon Tracy stripped the text to its raw components, then spliced the different plot points together. The script is more a series of samples than a faithful rendering of the source material. Conceptually, it's brilliant. As theater, it's a little abstruse.
Tracy's Animal Farm is an ensemble piece, narrated by the raven Moses (Brent Rose), who stands by and comments on the action. The other characters are divided by species: Pigs sit at the top of the food chain and lord over the other animals. Below them are the equines, a mix of loyal workers, petty bourgeoisie, and intellectual classes. Beneath them are the lumpen proletariat, whose members include dogs, sheep, and, at the very bottom, rats. All animals are anthropomorphic in Orwell's book; in Tracy's version there's almost nothing to distinguish them as animals, but for a few fur collars and some paw-mitts. To help clarify things, the cast members have animal names inscribed on their bodies: "boar," "sow," "toro," "bitch."
Otherwise, they look like members of an anarchist collective trying to stage another WTO protest. Their aesthetic borrows from punk, hip-hop, and skateboard subcultures, combining studded bracelets, fishnet stockings, and kneepads. Boss pig Old Major (Daniel Bruno) coordinates the rebellion from a platform atop the stage, where he bangs a drum set with a pair of mallets (as though to replicate the sound of a hammer hitting steel). The other animals dance around the stage like Rhythm Nation cadets, pretending to be members of a Communist army. They beatbox. They boogaloo. They pop limbs and do punctuated, staccato footwork that resembles Eighties-era break dancing. They pilfer lines from Orwell's book and loop them throughout the play (e.g., the pigs' original chant: "Four legs good, two legs bad!"), rendering it into a kind of hip-hop musical.
Their task, at first, is to overthrow Mr. Jones, the negligent, deadbeat farm owner who, according to Moses, "drinks his days away in the taproom at Wellington" and forgets to feed his animals. The pigs spearhead this rebellion, inciting the other animals with powerful oration and working patiently to recruit even the most reluctant into their fold. After clobbering Jones in the Battle of Cowshed, they're burdened with building a functional autocratic society.
Therein lies the rub. The pigs pay lip-service to a utopian ideal, which really isn't possible when you have three oversize egos jockeying for position at the helm. Beneath the God-like character Old Major are three tough power brokers. Napoleon, the malevolent Berkshire (played with serial-killer ferocity by Chad Deverman) is the play's consummate anthrophile — by the end, he's standing on two legs, having usurped the position once occupied by Farmer Jones. In the play, as in the book, he's absolutely ruthless. He steals puppies from the farm dog and trains them to be paramilitaries. He even sells a loyal draught horse to the slaughterhouse. Napoleon's chief rival, Snowball (Charisse Loriaux), is modeled after Leon Trotsky. Snowball wins the other animals' loyalty by organizing everyone into committees, building a windmill, and helping to produce a successful harvest. She is eventually chased out of the farm by Napoleon's canine security force. Squealer, the last pig (Ruben Oriol Rivera), serves as Napoleon's lackey and chief propagandist. Wearing a gold chain and sunglasses, he runs around on stage issuing commands through a microphone — a thoroughly modern agitator.
Orwell's Animal Farm demands quite a lot of its readers. On the surface, it's a morality tale that could apply to any situation of political malfeasance. But to grasp it on a deeper level you have to know something about Stalin's regime, and understand that each character has its own historical referent. Tracy's Farm is even harder to understand since it presumes its audience already has some familiarity with the book. For the uninitiated, it's still thoroughly entertaining, with Elena Wright's slick choreography and a stage set that looks less like a farm than a post-industrial scrap-metal funhouse. (Characters shimmy up poles and wiggle through trap doors.) But it doesn't engage you on the same level as a play with actual humans and character development. The Farm works on an aesthetic level, but its trendy format outpaces — and detracts from — the script. Apparently, Orwell wasn't that hip-hop.